People often shake their heads when they find out I’m a grad student. Pursuing a dream of research is foreign to someone focused on procuring the necessities of life, or the American dream. Grad students themselves find they have to shed unaccustomed parts of themselves; a nice car, an expensive meal or the latest fashions, and a lot of determinism. Yes, it’s true. Your advisor and your committee pass judgement, more than once, on whether your thoughts, aspirations and work are worthy. A thumbs-up brings a sigh of relief, and a thumbs down, the end of a career path.
One such occasion is the advancement exam, where you present the research problem you’re going to work on and some plausible ideas for solving it. For my exam, two questions brought the arbitrariness of the situation into sharp focus. The first question was, “Well, we agree that this is an important problem, but why you?” Once over my initial shock at this non-academic and rather personal question, I answered simply, “Because I am in love with this problem.” The professor actually had another answer in mind, but was unable to give any real objection to mine! The second arbitrary question was, “What will you do if your idea doesn’t work?” This was easier to answer; I simply said that so far, I seem to keep having ideas, and so I’ll likely keep working on it, until it’s time to get on with my life.
Another examiner jokingly asked me to sign a statement to this effect!
After the exam, I suddenly felt that those doing the judging had no right – after all, they didn’t know how to solve the problem either, but at least I had my own ideas. But if their judgement was meaningless, how to go on? Finally I decided, I would finish my research to my own satisfaction. Hopefully they would agree it was good enough, but even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t really matter so much.
If you are lucky, along the way through life, you realize that your own judgement of yourself is the only one that truly counts. Then you can do your work as a labor of love, despite undefined goals and the ambiguity of not knowing if you will ever get to the answer. And that, I believe is what being a researcher is really about.